Last year marked the 50th anniversary of the cubicle, and while few people dispute the impact this workplace wonder has had on office design and culture, most agree that cubicles have come to symbolize the old way of doing business.
Today, companies have transitioned to more open floor plans designed to foster creativity and collaboration among employees. In fact, open offices accounted for 70 percent of workplaces in a 2010 survey conducted by the International Management Facility Association.
But as the novelty of open plan offices has worn off, their negative qualities have started to emerge, including:
- Lower productivity: Research has shown that people who work in open offices experience higher levels of stress and lower levels of concentration and motivation. One study found that clerical workers who were exposed to open office noise for at least three hours had increased levels of epinephrine (also known as adrenaline), a hormone associated with the fight-or-flight response. Other researchers have found that exposure to noise in the workplace can make it difficult for workers to do everything from recalling information to doing simple arithmetic. In other words, open offices not only reduce the amount of work that gets done, but also the quality of the work when employees have a difficult time focusing on the task at hand.
- More sick days: A study of more than 2,400 workers in Denmark found that people who work in two-person offices took 50 percent more sick leave than those in single-person offices. The number was even higher -- 63 percent -- for individuals who worked in fully open offices. Meanwhile, a separate study found there was "a significant association with office type" with respect to short-term sick leave, defined as missing one week or less of work.
- Deflated morale: The inability to control one's professional environment can lead to feelings of helplessness in the workplace. Another study that included businesses ranging from a Midwest auto supplier to a Southwest telecom firm found employees who were unable to control the look and feel of their office, including adjustable settings like temperature and lighting, reported lower levels of job satisfaction.
Whether they have their own office or lease space in a coworking or shared office center, businesses of all sizes are finding the problems created by open floor plans often outweigh the benefits. This realization has created a need for a hybrid office model that facilitates teamwork without sacrificing employee privacy. The ideal floor plan is an office model consisting of three key elements:
- Collaborative common areas: Workplaces should offer a variety of common areas that are equipped for meetings and more casual gatherings. Today's workers want variety -- conference and lunch rooms, or something as informal as a seating area with a couch and a couple of armchairs. All of these spaces should be designed with the employee in mind. Are there surfaces for them to work on? Internet access? Outlets for their cell phones, tablets and computers? If it isn't functional, it isn't really serving a purpose.
- Team rooms and/or individual offices: Whether they're assigned or simply available on an as-needed basis, quiet spaces like huddle rooms and phone booths give workers the privacy they need for calls, one-on-one meetings, and tasks that require a high level of focus without taking up an entire conference room. With open workrooms, it's all coworking, all the time. Many open plan offices offer a handful of meeting rooms, but there's no guarantee these will be available when employees need to use them. Rather than one big room with row after row of tables, it's better to offer at least some private office space that can accommodate individual or small-group work.
- Conversation-friendly corridors: Some of the best insights and ideas come from serendipitous encounters with colleagues or, in the case of a shared office, employees of other businesses that operate out of the same center, so workplaces should be designed to maximize these interactions. Just because people work in their own offices doesn't mean they have to be shut off from the world. A circular or rectangular layout is one way to achieve this, as it avoids dead-end hallways that workers might not pass through if their offices are located elsewhere. It's also important to scatter amenities throughout a workplace so employees aren't walking by the same offices or workstations each day.
The implementation of these elements creates a workplace that offers the same level of collaboration as an open office while simultaneously eliminating the headaches caused by offices that took the open plan concept too far.
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Frank Chalupa is president and co-founder of Amata Office Solutions, a Chicago-based real estate provider specializing in office solutions for companies requiring up to 10,000 square feet of office space.